Now that veteran columnist and investigative reporter Lois Henry has left The Californian after 27 years of exposing malfeasance, injustice and corruption, it’s time to reveal her deepest, darkest secret.
The bulldog is a puppy.
The lioness is a kitten.
Beneath the hard, intimidating surface, behind the sharp wit, encyclopedic knowledge and penetrating intelligence, lurks a soft, chewy center.
She bakes cookies. True story.
OK, so it’s only once a year. And she will likely insist — and you’d better agree — that they’re the best cookies you’ve ever tasted.
Yes. Henry bakes. And if you were a government official who refused to release public information, or a social services director who wouldn't explain how a teenage girl fell through the cracks of the bureaucracy charged with protecting her, she would hold your feet to the fire.
Even those whose feet may show some old scars will miss her.
“I love Lois Henry,” said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood. “But for the life of me, I don’t know why.”
"You have to respect the job that she's done," he said. "I didn't always agree with Lois. There were times when I thought she was off-base. But I wasn't always right as well.
"Lois Henry is a bulldog."
Competitors in local news organizations recognize the contribution Henry has made. Veteran journalist Mike Trihey, news director at KGET Channel 17 News, said Henry, through her dogged work, made Bakersfield a better place.
"Lois truly is a Bakersfield institution," Trihey said in an email.
"She has an amazing ability to combine snarky and relevance. Somehow, it works. It makes our town a better place.
"Cynical, snide, irascible … but smart and germane, Lois gets people’s attention. She points out the follies and foibles of local government, and holds officials accountable.
"She has a casual, conversational writing style that draws readers into some really heavy topics."
And she got to be so relevant the old--fashioned way, Trihey said. Through hard work.
"She’s an expert in a number of crucial topics and works hard to maintain that expertise," he said. "This town will miss Lois. She has made it a better place. Her career at The Californian has been a tribute to the practice of journalism."
A Fresno State grad, Henry's foray into the newspaper business began at the Fresno Bee in 1986, where she was a copy kid and wrote obits.
She came to The Californian in 1990, first as a county correspondent. She was hired as a full-time staff writer in 1992.
She covered social services, city government and county government before being sent to the state capital in 1993 to work at The Californian's Sacramento Bureau.
Later she covered energy and oil before becoming an assistant city editor, city editor and, in 1998, assistant managing editor.
She began writing her column in 2007, and Kern County would never quite be the same. She proved to be the valley's, if not the state's, preeminent water journalist, pushed for solutions to Bakersfield's animal overpopulation problem and took on often-unpopular causes such as banning the use of personal fireworks and questioning the science behind air pollution rules.
"It is a major heartbreak for me and a loss to all who care about intelligent, rational and serious journalism," said Seyed Sadredin, the executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
"On every issue, Lois always did her homework and was able to hold accountable those of us in government charged with serving our residents," Sadredin said.
"Not only did she bring common sense to issues she wrote about, I was also impressed with her capacity and smarts to understand and ask probative questions on complex issues.
"I will miss her hard-hitting journalism, which was always mixed with a healthy dose of humor."
But Henry also had a soft side, which led her to fight for people who couldn't fight for themselves.
Henry recalled a story she worked on years ago about a single mother whose power was cut off by PG&E, even though the young woman had previously informed the utility that a neighbor had been illegally tapping into her electrical system.
"When you have to call the newspaper to get something so clearly wrong fixed, that is bad customer service," Henry said. "I'm still floored when people call us with these stories. Thank God the newspaper is here."
Just this month, Henry unloaded on Kern County’s child welfare and probation systems in response to the case of 15-year-old Stacy Duke, who walked away from a local group home and was later found murdered.
"Who the hell was supposed to be looking out for this child?" Henry wrote in her Aug. 18 column. "Someone — actually some agency — absolutely had responsibility for Stacy and dropped the ball big time."
Henry could be tough. But if defenseless children or animals were made victims of neglect or inattention, watch out.
For those inside the newsroom, the loss may be felt even more deeply.
"Lois has been the consummate journalist, serving our community at the highest levels," said Jim Lawitz, vice president & executive editor of The Californian, a member of the TBC Media family. "At a time when the public needs its local media more than ever, her departure will be keenly felt. I wish her well."
Associate Publisher Virginia Cowenhoven said Henry has long been an important voice for The Californian.
"Her strong journalism and pointed commentary has made Kern County a better place as a result," she said. "We thank her for her many years of service."
As Henry left the newsroom for the last time Friday, a bouquet of roses in her arms, she received a standing ovation and a round of applause from her colleagues. She turned for a moment, looked back one last time and closed the door behind her.
This story was corrected Aug. 28 to reflect the correct title of Mike Trihey, news director at KGET Channel 17 News.